“This year we wanted to make a special effort to include religious freedom in a way we didn’t see last year.”
Religious-centered events include an ethics panel discussion about the potential for a ground zero mosque and the screening of a PBS documentary called “God in America.”
Hugh Stevens, a Raleigh-based First Amendment lawyer and 1965 graduate of UNC, said the First Amendment has been consistently challenged on-campus since its inception.
He said the University has valued the debate of controversial ideas since its founding, particularly with the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies debate association.
But sometimes speech rights have faltered.
Stevens said he first became involved in free speech on campus during the speaker ban era, which coincided with other civil rights protests.
The 1963 speaker ban — passed by the N.C. General Assembly — prohibited speakers with Communist affiliations from speaking at a state institution and lasted until 1968.
Stevens said there is always value in hearing dissenting ideas, even if they are unpopular.
He said each generation of students has dealt with new topics that provoke controversy, such as the Tom Tancredo protests last year and the current controversy surrounding a Muslim community center near the site of ground zero.
He said this generation seems to be especially divided on religious freedom, which wasn’t a predominant topic when he attended UNC during the Civil Rights Movement.
“For most students, something comes up that gives students a laboratory of opportunity to examine what free speech is all about,” he said.
Packer said the necessity for a day that celebrates the First Amendment was reinforced last year at the banned books event.
She said one student looked at a stand of books that had been banned in various schools and asked aloud, “They’re not banned in America, are they?”
“This is why we’re having a First Amendment day,” Packer said.
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